Getting better sperm donors

By Razib Khan | August 15, 2011 11:53 pm

The British newspapers have been reporting on a bizarre story about a Dutch sperm donor who hid a history of mental problems from recipients. I didn’t pay much attention to it because of the British tabloid media’s tendency to sensationalize. But Radio Netherlands also reported the outlines of the story, and there seems to be validity to the broad facts at hand. A Dutch man with a history of mental illness did father many children by offering his services online, and hiding various conditions from potential mothers. Now several of the children have developed the same problems (e.g., autism).

But the specific case here highlights some constraints on sperm donation which seem to have resulted in a “gray market” which allowed this man to “slip through” the safeguards. And yet I wonder why there is so much regulation of sperm banks in the first place? It reminds me of a story from a few years back about panic in Turkey over the importation of “foreign sperm.” Is there is a strong public policy reason why we should have a sperm donor shortage? In an ideal world children should know their parents, but there are far greater social ills than anonymous sperm donors. Rather than regulations which distort the behavior of individuals (both single women and infertile couples) there should be encouragement of a robust market, which will allow for better vetting and cataloging as the supply increases.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics, Medicine
MORE ABOUT: Sperm donors
  • wendy

    In the US, there is little to no regulation or oversight of the reproductive medicine industry. There is not tracking of how many children are born for any one donor (130 is our largest group so far) and there is no medical follow up and sharing of information. The Donor Sibling Registry (DSR) has published research on donors (both inside and outside the US):

    The DSR’s donor research showed that 84% of sperm donors and 96% of egg donors
    had never been contacted by clinics/sperm banks for medical updates. But, 23% of
    sperm donors and 31% of egg donors did feel they, or their close family members,
    had medical or genetic issues that would be important for recipient families to
    know about.

    Some of the medical and genetic issues reported by sperm and egg donors for
    themselves or their immediate family include:

    Albinism, Alcoholism, Aspergers, Autism, Bi-Polar Disorder, Brain Aneurysm,
    Breast Cancer, CF Carrier, Canavan Disease, Cavernous Angioma, Colon Cancer,
    Congenital Heart Disease, Hashimoto’s Syndrome, Hemachromatosis, High Blood
    Pressure Leading to Stroke, Leukemia, Lung Cancer, Melanoma, Mitral Valve
    Prolapse, Multiple Myeloma, Multiple Sclerosis, Polycystic Kidney Disease,
    Prostate Cancer, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Spinal Muscular Atrophy, Type II
    Diabetes, Ulcerative Colitis

    In published research of 751 donor offspring, 77% recommended that parents use “open” donors. This is more than a parent’s right to have a child, or a donor’s right to be anonymous, or a sperm banks’s right to make money- it’s about how this methodology affects the people born because of it.

  • Mark Lyndon

    If he could hide it from the parents of 22 children, then it can’t have been that severe, and he could probably have hidden it from any sperm bank or clinic.

    If I were donor-conceived, I’d far rather have a genetic father with Asperger’s that I could meet, than a sperm bank’s “profile” of someone who’s identity I could never know (and who might have Asperger’s anyway).

    It’s hardly as if Asperger’s is a terrible affliction. The list of famous successful people believed to have had it goes on and on – Einstein, Henry Ford, Mozart, Dickens, Beethoven, Edison, Newton, Darwin, Jefferson, Michelangelo, Curie, Aristotle, Picasso, Orwell, Twain, and many others.

    The donor has been online to say that he has less than ten donor children, that he only started donating last year (which means that all the children are under a year old), and that none of them has a formal diagnosis of anything.

    I don’t believe there really is a sperm donor shortage in the UK btw, and even if there is, it’s not due to the ending of anonymity. According to HFEA figures, the numbers of UK sperm donors have gone *up* four years in a row since the ending of anonymity, thus reversing a three year decline. The 396 donors in 2008 (the most recent year for which figures are available) was the highest figure since 1996, and 77% more than in 2004 just before anonymity ended.

  • John Emerson

    I knew a sperm donor 30+ years ago who was never very functional and eventually became mentally ill. I’m not completely sure one way or the other whether his sperm was used for insemination or some kind of research. He was physically unimpressive too, though bright.

    The other sperm donor I knew then wasn’t terribly impressive either, a mediocre but OK guy.

  • Eugene Nutting

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  • Kiwiguy

    Danish sperm is particularly popular in the UK apparently. The donors can remain anonymous, while in the UK they need to give their details.

    “According to the latest figures from the Danish Department of Health, in 2008 2,694 non-Danish women came to Aarhus and Copenhagen for insemination, while in 2010 that number leapt to 4,665.

    In Denmark, sperm donation can remain anonymous unless the donor has chosen to be traceable. In Britain and a fast-increasing number of other European countries, the details of donors’ names and phone numbers must now be given out.

    The anonymity of the service has made Denmark a magnet for foreign women who want to conceive by artificial insemination, because it has no shortage of officially screened and tested semen.

    But there is also the attraction of tall, blue-eyed Nordic genes encouraging women into the clinic.

    Only a very small number of donations per man are allowed in each country, to limit the chances of half-siblings unknowingly pairing in future.

    But the anonymity of the donors- being the chief reason that eligible donors are so readily available – could mean difficult questions when the children grow up.”


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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